Aztec writing

Aztec or Nahuatl writing is pre-Columbian writing system that combines ideographic writing with Nahuatl specific phonetic logograms and syllabic signs[1] which was used in central Mexico by the Nahua people. The majority of Aztec codices were burned by the Spanish clergy following the conquest of Mesoamerica.[2] Remaining Aztec codices such as Codex Mendoza, Codex Borbonicus, and Codex Osuna were written on deer hide and plant fiber.

Pictographic and glyphs
Time period
Most extant manuscripts from the 16th century
Sister systems
U+15C00 to U+15FFF (tentative)


The Aztec writing system is adopted from writing systems used in Central Mexico, such as Zapotec writing. Mixtec writing is also thought to descend from the Zapotec. The first Oaxacan inscriptions are thought to encode Zapotec, partially because of numerical suffixes characteristic of the Zapotec languages.[3]

Structure and use

Aztec was pictographic and ideographic proto-writing, augmented by phonetic rebuses. It also contained syllabic signs and logograms. There was no alphabet, but puns also contributed to recording sounds of the Aztec language. While some scholars have understood the system to not be considered a complete writing system, this is a changing topic. The existence of logograms and syllabic signs are being documented and a phonetic aspect of the writing system has emerged,[1] even though many of the syllabic characters have been documented since at least 1888 by Nuttall.[4] There are conventional signs for syllables and logograms which act as word signs or for their rebus content.[4] Logosyllabic writing appears on both painted and carved artifacts, such as the Tizoc Stone.[5] However, instances of phonetic characters often appear within a significant artistic and pictorial context. In native manuscripts, the sequence of historical events are indicted by a line of footprints leading from one place or scene to another.

The ideographic nature of the writing is apparent in abstract concepts, such as death, represented by a corpse wrapped for burial; night, drawn as a black sky and a closed eye; war, by a shield and a club; and speech, illustrated as a little scroll issuing from mouth of the person who is talking. The concepts of motion and walking were indicated by a trail of footprints.[6]

A glyph could be used as a rebus to represent a different word with the same sound or similar pronunciation. This is especially evident in the glyphs of town names.[7] For example, the glyph for Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital, was represented by combining two pictograms: stone (te-tl) and cactus (nochtli).

Aztec Glyphs do not have a set reading order, as do Maya hieroglyphs. As such, they may be read in any direction which forms the correct sound values in the context of the glyph. However, there is an internal reading order in that any sign will be followed by the next sign for the following sound in the word being written. They do not jumble up the sounds in a word.


The Aztec numerical system was vigesimal. They indicated quantities up to twenty by the requisite number of dots. A flag was used to indicate twenty, repeating it for quantities up to four hundred, while a sign like a fir tree, meaning numerous as hairs, signified four hundred. The next unit, eight thousand, was indicated by an incense bag, which referred to the almost innumerable contents of a sack of cacao beans.[8]


Aztecs embraced the widespread manner of presenting history cartographically. A cartographic map would hold an elaborately detailed history recording events. The maps were painted to be read in sequence, so that time is established by the movement of the narrative through the map and by the succession of individual maps.

Aztecs also used continuous year-count annals to record anything that would occur during that year. All the years are painted in a sequence and most of the years are generally in a single straight line that reads continually from left to right. Events, such as solar eclipses, floods, droughts, or famines, are painted around the years, often linked to the years by a line or just painted adjacent to them. Specific individuals were not mentioned often, but unnamed humans were often painted in order to represent actions or events.[9] When individuals are named, they form the majority of the corpus of logosyllabic examples.

See also


  1. Lacadena, Alfonso. "Regional Scribal Traditions: Methodological Implications for th Decipherment of Nahuatl Writing" (PDF).
  2. Aguilar-Moreno., Manuel (2006). Handbook to Life in the Aztec World. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-533083-0. p. 265–266.
  3. Justeson (1986, p.449)
  4. Zender, Marc. "One Hundred and Fifty Years of Nahuatl Decipherment" (PDF). The PARI Journal.
  5. VanEssendelft, Willem (2011). The word made stone: deciphering and mapping the glyphs of the Tizoc stone (PDF). Harvard Special Collection. p. 86.
  6. Bray, Warwick (1968). Everyday Life of The Aztecs. pp. 93–96.
  7. Spinden, Herbert J. (1928). Ancient Civilizations of Mexico and Central America. pp. 223–229.
  8. Vaillant, George C. (1941). Aztecs of Mexico. pp. 206–209.
  9. Boone, Elizabeth H. (1996). Aztecs Imperial Strategies. pp. 181–206.


Lacadena, Alfonso (2008). "A Nahuatl Syllabary" (PDF). The PARI Journal. VIII (4).
Justeson, John S. (February 1986). "The Origin of Writing Systems: Preclassic Mesoamerica" (PDF). World Archaeology. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul. 17 (3): 437–458. doi:10.1080/00438243.1986.9979981. ISSN 0043-8243. OCLC 2243103. Archived from the original (online facsimile) on 2009-11-22. Retrieved 2009-06-09.
Prem, Hanns J. (1992). "Aztec Writing". In Victoria R. Bricker (volume ed.), with Patricia A. Andrews (ed.). Supplement to the Handbook of Middle American Indians, Vol. 5: Epigraphy. Victoria Reifler Bricker (general editor). Austin: University of Texas Press. pp. 53–69. ISBN 0-292-77650-0. OCLC 23693597.
Soustelle, Jacques (1961). Daily Life of the Aztecs: On the Eve of the Spanish Conquest. Patrick O’Brian (trans.). London: Phoenix. ISBN 1-84212-508-7. OCLC 50217224.
Zender, Marc (2008). "One Hundred and Fifty Years of Nahuatl Decipherment" (PDF). The PARI Journal. VIII (4).
Nuttall, Zelia (2008). "On the Complementary Signs of the Mexican Graphic System" (PDF). The PARI Journal. VIII (4).
VanEssendelft, Willem (2011). The Word Made Stone (PDF). Harvard Special Collections.

Further reading

  • Lawrence Lo. "Aztec". Ancient Scripts. Archived from the original on 2017-10-28.
  • Nicholson, H. B. (1974). "Phoneticism in the Late Pre-Hispanic Central Mexican Writing System". In E. P. Bensen (ed.). Mesoamerica Writing Systems. pp. 1–46.
  • Thouvenot, Marc (2002). "Nahuatl Script". In Anne-Marie Christin (ed.). A History of Writing: From Hieroglyph to Multimedia. Flammarion.
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